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Long, long ago there were people who listened to radio shows. This was before television created the way for cellphones and when the earth was still inhabitable. Even before this time, before the radio was in widespread use, the visionary E. M. Forster in The Machine Stops predicted the dystopia we find ourselves in today. That took imagination.
We are not born with imagination. It has to be developed by teachers, by parents. There was a time when imagination was very important because it was the major source of entertainment. Kurt Vonnegut
I was going to title this piece A Man Without A Country but I found out that Kurt Vonnegut already did this. I read his book and found out that he already said just about everything I was going to say. You can read his book in a couple of hours and I implore you to do so. He wrote the book pre-Trump but it applies equally well to today and will be just as current post-Trump. Some things never change.
For those who won’t buy the book or read it, I’ve appended Chapter 8 to the bottom of this post. It’s probably illegal to do so but I’m sure Vonnegut wouldn’t mind if he were still around. It’s my favorite chapter but all the other chapters are my favorites too so you better buy the book and read it. Please.
When I was just a kid I listened every Saturday morning to the Big John and Sparky show. I still remember the theme song.
A short story you probably never heard of, The Man Without A Country by Edward Everett Hale, was serialized on that show and I waited many a Saturday morning for the next episode. That’s where Vonnegut got the title for his book. I’d like to think he stole the idea from me but that would violate the laws of physics.
After giving up his ministry, Hale served during his last years as chaplain of the Senate. It was in this capacity that he uttered one of the more memorable zingers of the era. When asked if he prays for the senators, Hale replied, “No, I look at the senators and pray for the country.” Alexander Zaitchik
I found out from reading Vonnegut’s book that I’m very different from him in some ways. He has a sense of humor, I don’t. He chain-smoked unfiltered Pall Malls most of his life, I didn’t. He’s famous, wrote lots of books, knew lots of other famous people, not me. But in most of the important ways I found out that Vonnegut and I share a lot. Rather than go into it further, I’ll just refer you to Chapter 8 below.
Okay. Right now I’m going to stop writing and reread Vonnegut. We are both lost souls you might say although neither of us believes in souls. I am plugging his book this hard so he and his publisher won’t sue me for copying Chapter 8 below. Which you can read right now.
Excerpt From: A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut
Do you know what a humanist is? My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.
I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, “Isaac is up in heaven now.” It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, “Kurt is up in heaven now.” That’s my favorite joke.
How do humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all humanists do, “If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?”
But if Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.
I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake.
Human beings have had to guess about almost everything for the past million years or so. The leading characters in our history books have been our most enthralling, and sometimes our most terrifying, guessers.
May I name two of them?
Aristotle and Hitler.
One good guesser and one bad one. And the masses of humanity through the ages, feeling inadequately educated just like we do now, and rightly so, have had little choice but to believe this guesser or that one.
Russians who didn’t think much of the guesses of Ivan the Terrible, for example, were likely to have their hats nailed to their heads.
We must acknowledge that persuasive guessers, even Ivan the Terrible, now a hero in the Soviet Union, have sometimes given us the courage to endure extraordinary ordeals which we had no way of understanding. Crop failures, plagues, eruptions of volcanoes, babies being born dead—the guessers often gave us the illusion that bad luck and good luck were understandable and could somehow be dealt with intelligently and effectively. Without that illusion, we all might have surrendered long ago.
But the guessers, in fact, knew no more than the common people and sometimes less, even when, or especially when, they gave us the illusion that we were in control of our destinies.
Persuasive guessing has been at the core of leadership for so long, for all of human experience so far, that it is wholly unsurprising that most of the leaders of this planet, in spite of all the information that is suddenly ours, want the guessing to go on. It is now their turn to guess and guess and be listened to. Some of the loudest, most proudly ignorant guessing in the world is going on in Washington today. Our leaders are sick of all the solid information that has been dumped on humanity by research and scholarship and investigative reporting.
They think that the whole country is sick of it, and they could be right. It isn’t the gold standard that they want to put us back on. They want something even more basic. They want to put us back on the snake-oil standard.
Loaded pistols are good for everyone except inmates in prisons or lunatic asylums.
Millions spent on public health are inflationary.
Billions spent on weapons will bring inflation down.
Dictatorships to the right are much closer to American ideals than dictatorships to the left.
The more hydrogen bomb warheads we have, all set to go off at a moment’s notice, the safer humanity is and the better off the world will be that our grandchildren will inherit.
Industrial wastes, and especially those that are radioactive, hardly ever hurt anybody, so everybody should shut up about them.
Industries should be allowed to do whatever they want to do: Bribe, wreck the environment just a little, fix prices, screw dumb customers, put a stop to competition, and raid the Treasury when they go broke.
That’s free enterprise.
And that’s correct.
The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn’t be poor, so their children should pay the consequences.
The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its own people.
The free market will do that.
The free market is an automatic system of justice.
And if you actually are an educated, thinking person, you will not be welcome in Washington, D.C. I know a couple of bright seventh graders who would not be welcome in Washington, D.C. Do you remember those doctors a few months back who got together and announced that it was a simple, clear medical fact that we could not survive even a moderate attack by hydrogen bombs? They were not welcome in Washington, D.C.
Even if we fired the first salvo of hydrogen weapons and the enemy never fired back, the poisons released would probably kill the whole planet by and by.
What is the response in Washington? They guess otherwise. What good is an education? The boisterous guessers are still in charge—the haters of information. And the guessers are almost all highly educated people. Think of that. They have had to throw away their educations, even Harvard or Yale educations.
If they didn’t do that, there is no way their uninhibited guessing could go on and on and on. Please, don’t you do that. But if you make use of the vast fund of knowledge now available to educated persons, you are going to be lonesome as hell. The guessers outnumber you—and now I have to guess—about ten to one.
In case you haven’t noticed, as the result of a shamelessly rigged election in Florida, in which thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily disenfranchised, we now present ourselves to the rest of the world as proud, grinning, jut-jawed, pitiless war-lovers with appallingly powerful weaponry—who stand unopposed.
In case you haven’t noticed, we are now as feared and hated all over the world as the Nazis once were.
And with good reason.
In case you haven’t noticed, our unelected leaders have dehumanized millions and millions of human beings simply because of their religion and race. We wound ’em and kill ’em and torture ’em and imprison ’em all we want.
Piece of cake.
In case you haven’t noticed, we also dehumanized our own soldiers, not because of their religion or race, but because of their low social class.
Send ’em anywhere. Make ’em do anything.
Piece of cake.
The O’Reilly Factor.
So I am a man without a country, except for the librarians and a Chicago paper called In These Times. Before we attacked Iraq, the majestic New York Times guaranteed that there were weapons of mass destruction there.
Albert Einstein and Mark Twain gave up on the human race at the end of their lives, even though Twain hadn’t even seen the First World War. War is now a form of TV entertainment, and what made the First World War so particularly entertaining were two American inventions, barbed wire and the machine gun.
Shrapnel was invented by an Englishman of the same name. Don’t you wish you could have something named after you? Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain, I now give up on people, too. I am a veteran of the Second World War and I have to say this is not the first time I have surrendered to a pitiless war machine.
My last words? “Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse.”
Napalm came from Harvard. Veritas!
Our president is a Christian?
So was Adolf Hitler.
What can be said to our young people, now that psychopathic personalities, which is to say persons without consciences, without senses of pity or shame, have taken all the money in the treasuries of our government and corporations, and made it all their own?
And the most I can give you to cling to is a poor thing, actually. Not much better than nothing, and maybe it’s a little worse than nothing. It is the idea of a truly modern hero. It is the bare bones of the life of Ignaz Semmelweis, my hero.
Ignaz Semmelweis was born in Budapest in 1818. His life overlapped with that of my grandfather and with that of your grandfathers, and it may seem a long time ago, but actually he lived only yesterday.
He became an obstetrician, which should make him modern hero enough. He devoted his life to the health of babies and mothers. We could use more heroes like that. There’s damn little caring for mothers, babies, old people, or anybody physically or economically weak these days as we become ever more industrialized and militarized with the guessers in charge.
I have said to you how new all this information is. It is so new that the idea that many diseases are caused by germs is only about 140 years old. The house I own in Sagaponack, Long Island, is nearly twice that old. I don’t know how they lived long enough to finish it. I mean, the germ theory is really recent. When my father was a little boy, Louis Pasteur was still alive and still plenty controversial. There were still plenty of high-powered guessers who were furious at people who would listen to him instead of to them.
Yes, and Ignaz Semmelweis also believed that germs could cause diseases. He was horrified when he went to work for a maternity hospital in Vienna, Austria, to find out that one mother in ten was dying of childbed fever.
These were poor people—rich people still had their babies at home. Semmelweis observed hospital routines, and began to suspect that doctors were bringing the infection to the patients. He noticed that the doctors often went directly from dissecting corpses in the morgue to examining mothers in the maternity ward. He suggested as an experiment that the doctors wash their hands before touching the mothers.
What could be more insulting? How dare he make such a suggestion to his social superiors? He was a nobody, he realized. He was from out of town, with no friends and protectors among the Austrian nobility. But all that dying went on and on, and Semmelweis, having far less sense about how to get along with others in this world than you and I would have, kept on asking his colleagues to wash their hands.
They at last agreed to do this in a spirit of lampoonery, of satire, of scorn. How they must have lathered and lathered and scrubbed and scrubbed and cleaned under their fingernails.
The dying stopped. Imagine that! The dying stopped. He saved all those lives.
Subsequently it might be said that he has saved millions of lives—including, quite possibly, yours and mine. What thanks did Semmelweis get from the leaders of his profession in Viennese society, guessers all? He was forced out of the hospital and out of Austria itself, whose people he had served so well. He finished his career in a provincial hospital in Hungary. There he gave up on humanity—which is us, and our information-age knowledge and on himself.
One day ,in the dissection room, he took the blade of a scalpel with which he had been cutting up a corpse, and he stuck it on purpose into the palm of his hand. He died, as he knew he would, of blood poisoning soon afterward.
The guessers had had all the power. They had won again. Germs indeed. The guessers revealed something about themselves, too, which we should duly note today. They aren’t really interested in saving lives. What matters to them is being listened to—as, however ignorantly, their guessing goes on and on and on. If there’s anything they hate it’s a wise human.
So be one anyway. Save our lives and your lives, too. Be honorable.